BWW Review: Sting's THE LAST SHIP Stars Scene-Stealing Scenic Design by 59 Productions
Completely re-imagined since its Broadway debut in 2014, THE LAST SHIP, inspired by Sting's 1991 album, "The Soul Cages," tells the story of Gideon, a prodigal son returning home after 17 years at sea to find that the local shipyard his town was built around is closing and Meg, the love he left behind, has moved on. But even more shocking to him is learning Meg bore him a daughter, Ellen, eight months of his departure. Tensions flare between the two and their independent daughter, while picket lines are drawn as foreman Jackie White (Sting) rallies the workers to take over the shipyard and build one last ship in the face of the gathering storm.
A love story, a tale of family and friendship, and a passionate homage to the shipbuilding community Sting grew up in, THE LAST SHIP features a Tony-nominated original score by seventeen-time Grammy Award®-winner Sting, including some of his best-loved songs "Island of Souls," "All This Time" and "When We Dance." But I am sure the real pull to this new musical is Sting himself, with fans expecting more than what actually is being presented.
The real problem with the production is its lengthy, almost three-hour book, written by Lorne Campbell who also directs the tour now onstage at the Ahmanson through February 16. Even more difficult for American audiences is the struggle to understand the language, both when spoken and in Sting's lyrics, given the entire cast's use of the Georgie dialect of Tyneside in the Northeast of England, which is a blend of Scottish and Baltic languages from across the North Sea. Those working in the shipyard could understand each other, which is more than I can say about this reviewer, among others in the audience I overheard complaining about the same thing during intermission.
I also found it difficult to understand why Sting chose to "talk-speak-sing' several of his solos, unless he realizes how difficult it is for the audience to understand his lyrics. But since most in the audience were drawn to the musical to hear Sting sing, he decision to only showcase his great vocal prowess during certain songs or emotional moments seemed rather forced to me. However, I did enjoy the scenes between his Jackie and wife Peggy (Jackie Morrison), who can belt heartfelt emotions to the max, even if I could not understand what she was saying/singing most of the time.
Oliver Savile's Gideon fares better, allowing us to be drawn into the challenging changes he must deal with upon returning home after 17 years of travelling the high seas. Especially effective are his emotional scenes with Meg (Frances McNamee) and his daughter Ellen, which no doubt will have you rooting for his torn-apart family to be reunited. But life has a way of making things work out for the best, at least in fantasy tales.
Also entertaining and heartfelt are scenes between young Gideon (Joseph Peacock) and young Meg (Jade Sophia Vertannes) as we witness their youthful infatuation as well as the realization that Gideon needs to get out of town to live his life in a different and more fulfilling way, while Meg is saddled with the responsibility of staying in town to care for her family.And of course, neither realize at the time that they are soon to become parents, a fate almost worse than death for a unmarried, good Catholic girl in town. And since she never hears from Gideon after he leaves her standing on the dock, she never relays her pregnancy until he returns 17 years later to meet his now 16 year old daughter, Ellen, portrayed by young belter extraordinaire Sophie Reid, who accompanies herself on ukulele during "All This Time" along with the seven-piece orchestra led by Musical Director Richard John on keyboard.
The real star of the show is its designed-to-travel, multi-level scenic design by 59 Productions, enhanced by sound designer Sebastian Front and lighting designer Matt Daw, which includes some of the most amazing projections I have ever witnessed that completely transform into the many scenes required, from the shipyard, inside homes, the local beer pub, to an extraordinary church interior that generated gasps from the audience, as well as the appearance of waves crashing on the docks and snow falling. But it is the final scene when the Utopia, the last ship to be built, launches from the soon-to-close shipyard that will take your breath away. It's just a shame it takes almost 3 hours to get to it.
It's a wise decision to give movement director Lucy Hind that title, as whatever choreography is in the show is of the most pedantic, repetitive nature, mostly having the cast line up and sing as if in a concert rather than a staged musical. Unfortunately, this led to most of the numbers being rather dull and boring to watch. However, there were exceptions, especially the second act opening number when the female members of the company, led with high energy by blonde bombshell Orla Gormley and Frances McNamee, in "Mrs. Dee's Rant" about the conditions in the town and with their men in a more interactive way, speaking directly to several audience members.
The remainder of the entirely British cast of THE LAST SHIP includes Marc Akinfolarin, Joe Caffrey, Matt Corner, Susan Fay, Annie Grace, Sean Kearns, Oliver Kearney, David Muscat, Tom Parsons and Hannah Richardson who portray shipyard workers and townspeople working and fighting together to save their livelihoods, or at least the ability to complete and launch the last ship. The gray bleakness of the town and its inhabitants' lives is reflecting in costume designer Molly Einchcomb's fabrics and color choices.
THE LAST SHIP performances take place Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. (dark Mondays). Exceptions: Added 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, February 13; no 6:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, February 16. Tickets for the premiere Los Angeles engagement at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 972-4400, or by visiting the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012). Ticket run $35-$199. Run time is almost 3 hours including one intermission. For more information on the production and a video sneak peek, please visit thelastshipmusical.com.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy